Happy Birthday Nate!

My best friend Nate turned thir­ty today.

Of course, I haven’t seen, him, spo­ken to him, received any cor­re­spon­dence from him, or even heard any news of him since some­time in ear­ly 1998.

Nate was born on 15 May 1976 in Würzburg, West Ger­many, where his father, an offi­cer in the Unit­ed States Air Force, was sta­tioned at the time. They returned to the States two years lat­er, and Nate grew up in the same small south­ern Min­neso­ta town that saw my birth, and the birth of both my par­ents. We lived five miles out of town, but I spent a lot of after­noons at my mater­nal grand­par­ents house, and Nate’s fam­i­ly lived just a block behind their back yard.

Our moth­ers knew each oth­er slight­ly through church activ­i­ties, but we met more or less by chance, as I was swept up in a small band of neigh­bour­hood chil­dren for an after­noon of impromp­tu play. I was sev­en years old. Two years my senior, Nate was a bit unre­al; I was in awe of being invit­ed to play with this “old­er kid”.

The awe wore of, and before long we sought each oth­er out to play: with plas­tic dinosaurs, with G.I. Joes, with wood­en guns and our trea­sured cam­ou­flage hats. Nate lived at the grow­ing edge of town, and there was almost always a house under con­struc­tion; the result­ing mounds of dirt pro­vid­ed a con­stant­ly-chang­ing land­scape for us to explore with our shared toys and linked imag­i­na­tions.

And when he came out to our farm, our play had the whole coun­try­side to stretch out in. We devel­oped sweep­ing mytholo­gies in which we played the heroes (of course) and we tramped the dark coun­ty roads long past our bed­times, res­cu­ing grate­ful maid­ens and thwart­ing inter­na­tion­al crime syn­di­cates.

Then we moved away. I was nine years old, and I thought my world was end­ing. But we kept in touch, and when we did get togeth­er it was usu­al­ly for a more extend­ed peri­od than when we had lived mere min­utes apart. It became a tra­di­tion for him to spend a week with me each sum­mer, and we packed a year’s worth of fun and adven­ture into those sum­mer days; long after­noons of war games in the woods and rid­ing our bikes to dis­tant quar­ries to search for geo­log­i­cal spec­i­mens, fol­lowed by long nights of swap­ping sto­ries around our lit­tle camp­fire or sneak­ing out for long moon­lit treks through a land­scape filled with all the adven­ture and dan­ger our teem­ing imag­i­na­tions could pro­vide.

As we grew old­er, Nate illu­mi­nat­ed my home-schooled iso­la­tion with the ben­e­fits of his pub­lic edu­ca­tion. He expand­ed my vocab­u­lary, regaled me with rib­ald and sala­cious sto­ries of his school­mates, intro­duced me to the best of 90’s hair met­al and a vari­ety of come­di­ans whose blue humour was prob­a­bly large­ly lost on me.

Inevitably, we grew apart as we grew up. By the time he was near­ing the end of high school, Nate no longer cared to spend hours in the wood role-play­ing with Match­box cars as we had once done. The fact that I had spent the entire year prepar­ing for his next vis­it, build­ing a city out of field stones, dig­ging a open-pit mine, and draft­ing a five-page plot out­line for the sto­ry­line of our game was, in ret­ro­spect, prob­a­bly a bit much for a debonair 17-year-old to get excit­ed about.

He start­ed col­lege at a small state col­lege less than an hour’s dri­ve from us, so I thought we would see much more of each oth­er. We vis­it­ed a bit, but he was busy with school and life. One after­noon he drove up unex­pect­ed­ly; his dorm had been evac­u­at­ed by a bomb scare, so he had decid­ed to dri­ve up and see me. We went on a long walk along the coun­try roads we had both come to know so well. I was mak­ing my plans to start my own col­lege career the fol­low­ing year, plans which at that point were still entire­ly musi­cal. I had shared with him some bit of writ­ing I had done before we set off on our walk, and he seemed pre­oc­cu­pied with it as we talked of our plans and dreams. “You are a good writer,” he final­ly man­aged to say. “I don’t want to influ­ence you or any­thing,” he went on, “but if you don’t do some­thing with your writ­ing, I’ll kill you.” He gave me a half-smile, behind which was an earnest­ness I was not expect­ing from him. “Not that I’m try­ing to influ­ence you or any­thing,” he was quick to add.

I was flat­tered by the praise, and amused by his unex­pect­ed seri­ous­ness. I had nev­er giv­en a thought to pur­su­ing any path that overt­ly involved writ­ing. It was sim­ply some­thing I did, had always strug­gled with, but kept at, like a com­pul­sion. But his words stirred the seed of truth that lay in my soul, and before long I knew that my music would be words.

The last time I saw Nate, he came to vis­it me at sem­i­nary. He had left col­lege and was study­ing mod­el­ling in the Twin Cities, aspir­ing to be an actor and work­ing night secu­ri­ty some­where. We caught up for a while in my room, then we went for a long walk around cam­pus. He observed that we were study­ing for oppo­site pro­fes­sions: my path was one of mean­ing and integri­ty, while he was study­ing to be “pro­fes­sion­al­ly shal­low.”

I nev­er saw him again. We exchanged emails for a while, but I am not a reli­able cor­re­spon­dent, and before much longer the address I had for him no longer worked. Occa­sion­al late-night Google search­es have failed to bring me any news of his life. About three and a half years ago, in the midst of the wed­ding prepa­ra­tions, I very much want­ed to invite my old friend to share with me one of the hap­pi­est days of my life. I wrote a let­ter to his moth­er, ask­ing her to either send me Nate’s cur­rent address or pass mine along to him. I received no reply from either her or him.

I don’t know where you are now, Nate, or what you are doing. I trust you have found your path, and are mak­ing your mark. You will prob­a­bly nev­er read this, because for all the her­ald­ed small­ness of this world, there is plen­ty of room in it for our paths to nev­er cross again. But should you hap­pen across this some­how, I thought you should know I still trea­sure the long friend­ship that was ours. And I want­ed you to know I am still writ­ing, still putting the occa­sion­al word out into the world. Not that you influ­enced me or any­thing.

1 Comment

  1. Beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, broth­er — a nice trib­ute to a dear friend­ship. I wish there was a way he would find it. But regard­less, the feel­ing in your writ­ing has sent a lit­tle vibe of mean­ing out into the world. Love you! Hei­di

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